Judith Newman’s delightful article in the NYT describes how Apple’s speech-recognition software is helping her autistic son to communicate.
One of the things that has always been a challenge for developers is the ‘progress bar’. It can be very difficult to predict in advance just how long something is going to take: you work it out for, say, a typical operating system update on the typical machine and then you find that some users have 100,000 things in their Trash, or are in the midst of a backup to a slow external drive, or whatever…
Installing Mac OS X Yosemite this morning, the progress bar sat at ‘About one minute remaining’ for well over half an hour, so I went and did some Googling and found that I was not alone – many people waited much longer than that, but it always completed in the end. Of course, like a watched pot, it will never get there if you’re sitting waiting for it, so you have to go and do something else. Usually, it is just a mild annoyance for impatient enthusiasts like me, but occasionally it can be a more serious problem if you’re told something will take 30 mins, for example, and you therefore assume you can do it before your appointment in an hour’s time.
Anyway, watching the slowly-progressing pixels gave me an idea…
There are tens of millions of people who will be going through this process over the next few months: surely you could improve the accuracy of their progress bars by uploading the timing information at the end of each installation, along with basic information about the system and then using that to give more accurate estimates to those with similar machines, similar disk usage, etc?
For the last few months I’ve switched over to using MailMate as my main email app on the Mac. Alternative mail programs are not very numerous, partly because, overall, Apple’s default one does a remarkably good job. I’ve always rather liked it.
MailMate has a few quirks, and is still in development. (Hint: Turn on ‘Experimental features’, and under Software Update hold down Alt while pressing the ‘Check Now’ to get the very latest version. This sounds dodgy, but I’ve had no reliability problems.)
Overall, I love it. Here are some of my favourite features:
- I like the ‘correspondence mode’ – when you’re looking a message, this extra window shows you all your correspondence with that person.
I like being able to write my emails in Markdown.
It copes well with my 11GB of mail.
There are helpful prompts which warn you if you might intend to do something slightly different. For example, you’ve used words that suggest you’re attaching something, but don’t actually have any attachments. Or if you’ve hit reply on a message that originally had multiple recipients: it lists the other people and asks if you really wanted ‘Reply All’?
The search facilities are awesome. If you need to find the messages that you sent to Fred, or that he sent to you, before the start of the year, that don’t contain the word ‘invoice’, it’s easy to do.
You can save these complex queries as Smart Mailboxes. In fact, every list of messages you see is basically a database query, and you can treat them as pretty much alike.
You can rearrange the order of the mailboxes in the list on the left. So if your smart mailboxes are more important than your folder layout on the server, you can put them at the top.
These last two have combined to make the single best feature for me. In the past, I used to mark as ‘unread’ any messages which still needed my attention. The problem was that it was too easy, when skimming through messages on one of my devices, unwittingly to mark things as ‘read’ and never get around to acting on them when I got back home. And shuffling things into different folders was too much hassle while walking the dog; I just wanted a single inbox and a way of noting what was important.
MailMate’s smart mailbox came to the rescue. I now flag messages that need further action, instead of leaving them as unread. My number one mailbox collects the unread and flagged messages from all my inboxes into one place, and doesn’t show anything else.
This is brilliant, because I know that anything I flag, from any program on any device, will appear there, along with any messages I haven’t yet seen. In other words, these are the only things that require my attention. It’s usually a nice short list, and it’s where I spend almost all my time.
MailMate costs $50, which is a hard sell when the Mac comes with a very good email program, and there are free alternatives like Thunderbird. There are a couple of minor features that I miss from Apple Mail, like its handling of images. And it took me a couple of weeks to feel really at home with MailMate.
But there’s a 30-day free trial, and I paid for it long before my time was up. Recommended.
On episode 191 of Mac Power Users, I described how I found it useful to be able to visualise the various steps of my automated ‘paperless workflow’. (Something I also wrote about here on Status-Q last year.)
A few people asked for more details, so here’s a 9-minute screencast going into some of the details.
Also available on Vimeo for the media cognoscenti!
I love my Mac and iOS devices, but writing native apps for them has always been made somewhat less pleasurable by the programming languages available. Objective-C (which is behind the typical app on your iPhone or Mac) has its merits, or at least, had its merits when it was designed 30 years ago, but things have moved on quite a lot since then. And don’t get me started on the abomination that is AppleScript…
That’s why, amongst the panoply of geeky goodies that Apple announced at its developer conference this week, the thing that interested me most is their new programming language, Swift, which looks rather lovely. (You can find excellent introductory talks about it here.) It’s early days yet, but may be good enough that, henceforward, people will flock to Apple’s development environment because of, rather than despite, the language.
It’s not clear whether Swift will be available anywhere other than on Apple platforms, and there may be a certain degree of deliberate lock-in here. But that’s better than the old situation where Objective-C was available elsewhere, but nobody really cared.
All of which may help to explain why the book The Swift Programming Language had been downloaded by more than a third of a million people within the first 24 hours of anyone knowing the language even existed.
Something I’ve just discovered…
If you plug a MacBook Pro running Mavericks into an external display, it will try to select a screen resolution, or offer you a list based on what the display says it can manage.
But, particularly if you’re connected by VGA or through some kind of extender, the resolutions offered may be very limited. This is what I got from a reasonably modern TV connected by VGA to my Thunderbolt-to-VGA adapter in a university meeting room:
Even when the resolution is high enough, these are all 4:3 aspect ratios and don’t make good use of anything wide-screen.
However, if you hold down option/alt and click on the ‘Scaled’ button (even if it’s already selected), you get a whole lot more options:
There’s no guarantee that the screen/projector will be able to cope with any particular resolution selected here, but there’s a pretty good chance, for example, that a modern TV will at least do 1280×768, and that certainly worked for me.
Hope it’s useful!
Some of this, no doubt, is encouraged by the manufacturers of the standing desks, and even treadmill desks, which are to the young entrepreneurs of today what the Aeron chair was to the dot-com startups of yesteryear.
But whether or not you believe the more worrying claims of reduced life expectancy, I think we can agree that it’s not a bad idea to get up and stretch your legs from time to time. Maybe have a bottle of chilled water, if you’re from California, or a nice cup of tea, if you’re British.
So I’ve been rather taken with a little Mac app called BreakTime, which will pop up and nag you when you’ve been working at your computer for too long at a stretch. You can choose the time periods: mine requires me to have a four-minute break after 56 minutes, for example, and you have some control over how persistent it will be: are you allowed to dismiss it before the four minutes are up? It also makes sensible decisions if you leave the machine of your own accord first, and resets the timer when you return.
I find, to my surprise, that I really like it: I’ve put it on all my machines, and what it highlights is just how difficult it is to keep track of time myself. I’m amazed how quickly an hour of sitting still can fly by when I’m deep in concentration. Even if I do little more than stand up and tidy some things off my desk, I’m sure it’s a good discipline.
There are several other similar utilities out there, but BreakTime works well for me. Recommended.
Update: Tim Green, on Facebook, pointed out Workrave, which does something similar for Windows and Linux. I’m linking to it here because, of course, you can’t search Facebook – even your own history (something I still find incomprehensible).
A geeky post for video editors…
While working on my FCPXchange utility, I did some experiments to see how well Final Cut Pro kept track of files if you moved them around under its feet. I was quite impressed with the results:
Now, exploring a bit further, later, I realised that it can’t be using Spotlight, at least not exclusively, to track the file, because it could still find it even when I put it in a folder explicitly excluded from Spotlight indexing.
And then I realised that all my changes had been moves not copies. If I did anything which involved copying the media and then deleting the original, FCP could no longer track it, whereas, if it were using Spotlight metadata, presumably it could track that in the copy too.
Now, I don’t know much about the deeper workings of HFS+, but I’m guessing that it’s effectively tracking ‘inodes’ here, which means that the same bit of content can be found, whatever name it may have in folders. This, however, will only work with the original copy on the same disk. If you start shifting files around between disks or servers, you’ll thwart it!
In late October, Apple released new versions of its iWork office suite – Pages, Keynote and Numbers – which had all been rewritten from scratch. Upgrading was easy, the new versions were free, and so lots of people hit the download button, myself included. The apps are pretty, with a nice simplified layout, and are designed to match the iOS versions very closely – with full document compatibility.
Now, I’ve been a big fan of iWork for a while. It’s been years since I used Microsoft Word voluntarily, because for most documents I prefer Pages. Keynote leaves Powerpoint way behind – haven’t used that for years either. Excel, though, is still definitely superior to Numbers, if you’re a power-user, but for simple stuff I prefer Numbers too.
However, with these new versions, there were issues, basically because many features had not yet been rewritten, and hence were just left out. Uproar ensued. The first thing I missed was the ability to customise the ‘presenter display’ on Keynote. Rose has just found out how inferior the ‘Export to Word’ functionality is in the new Pages. And a quick glance at the ratings on the Mac app store will give you a whole list of other things that have caused distress to others.
Fortunately, none of this is fatal. If you have iWork’09, the upgrade process doesn’t remove it, and the two versions will coexist quite happily. I fairly soon just put the old versions back in my Dock, and carried on. If you have created any documents in the new packages, you can export them back to the older formats. I guess it may become more tricky over time to buy iWork’09, but it’s not hard to find it on Amazon at present. And finally, Apple have admitted that these new apps weren’t quite fully-formed at birth, and have produced a list of all the bits they’re going to fix in the next few months. Remember, these new apps are not at all bad, and they are free. Many new Mac owners won’t need anything else. It’s just that the old versions were already cheap, and much better. As Joni said, don’t it always seem to be that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…
This has been quite a publicity disaster. So much of the good will that might have been associated with a high-quality and completely-free office suite has been squandered because Apple didn’t admit beforehand that this was a cut-down version to get started. And you’d have thought they would have learned their lesson by now, because the last thing they did this to was the video-editing package Final Cut Pro – another complete rewrite – which was one of the biggest launch disasters for some time, losing huge numbers of loyal users in the film industry to Adobe’s competing package, Premiere.
But Final Cut is also the thing that gives me hope for the future of iWork. Because over the next couple of years, Apple quietly pushed out update after update – 10 in all – to the point where Final Cut Pro X is now a very fine piece of software, which I’ve enjoyed using extensively in recent weeks.
Rewriting or replacing a major software package is an enormous task, and many companies just don’t have the guts to attempt it. I suspect that, in future, we’ll see that what Apple can do with both FCPX and iWork — because their underlying chassis has been modernised — will give them big competitive advantages. But they need to learn, when they introduce such radical changes, to make it clear that this is not the same as the previous version and to show a development roadmap so users can feel confident about hanging on, rather than jumping ship.
Sadly, it’s not in Apple’s nature to admit, in advance at least, that anything is not perfect. But it’s better to do that than to be forced to admit it in retrospect. The first implies confidence, planning, and honesty. The second implies that you were either dishonest, unprepared or foolish. I wonder if the marketing guys can understand the distinction.
From the “don’t believe everything you read on the net” department…
Now, the first thing to note is that they’re talking about unit sales here, not value – and an average MacBook costs about 4 times the price of a Chromebook. So this is about number of users rather than market value.
But Don queried this, as I did, on the basis that I’ve never actually seen a Chromebook in use, whereas almost everybody I know has an Apple laptop. So where are they all going? Don’t get me wrong, I like the Chromebook idea – it’s great for certain environments, and I wish some of my NHS clients were using those instead of Windows PCs with IE6. But for normal users, there is the old joke: “What do you call a Chromebook without a network connection? A brick.”
Then Jochen Weiland found this article which paints a rather different picture. So what’s going on here?
Well, the thing that’s a bit uncertain is exactly where the NPD statistics come from. This article says that “NPD Group…tracked U.S. PC sales to commercial buyers such as businesses, schools, government and other organizations”, which, if right, would partially explain it. NPD’s pages talk about “US Commercial channels”, and “VARs”. Some readers have suggested that this probably doesn’t include Apple’s retail or online stores, which, if true, would skew the statistics to an outrageous degree. I’m trying to find the answer to that.
If the report were about iPhones, then it’s true that the majority of those are sold through other channels than Apple’s own (though Apple’s limited number of retail stores still apparently account for 11% of all US cellphone sales – and that’s just the bricks-and-mortar stores. Or glass-and-mortar, perhaps.). But for MacBooks the situation is very much reversed, and I imagine iPads come somewhere in between. To leave out the main Apple channels is to paint a very distorted picture. And it seems likely that they have done this, because Apple tends not to reveal its sales figures to anyone. At least, not until they want to.
So it may be that the article is bunk. Or it may perhaps be an indication of trends in the institutional world, if not the consumer world.
But, to be fair, it may be that a surge in Chromebook sales – which you’ll note only started this year, supposedly following the failure of Windows 8 – will take a while to make an impact on the actual numbers of devices out there. And actually, I do know someone who uses one: Jeff Jarvis, who seems very keen on his, but then, his is a Chromebook Pixel, the top end of the range, and it costs about the same as the MacBook Pro…
I am fortunate to be the owner of three Drobos. One I bought, and two I have inherited from past companies etc, and they’ve served me very well. I have had many hard drives die over the years – and another goes every six months or so – but I’ve never lost any data if the drive was in a Drobo. And the flexibility just to plug in a new drive of any size at any time is great. They’re not perfect, but overall, they’ve been a very good place to put my music, photos and video-editing projects, without covering my desk with lots of different individual drives and their related cables and power supplies. The youngest one is more than four years old now, and they’re not particularly fast, but I’ve never had one fail.
Having said that, there is the problem of ‘How do you back up the Drobo’? If the unit should fail, I suspect getting the data off the drives would be very tricky, since they use their own custom filesystem – though, to be fair, that’s true of quite a lot of RAID systems. In some circumstances you can take the drive set out of one Drobo and plug it into another, so that’s probably the best route, unless you have the luxury, as I do, of backing your Drobo up to another Drobo! (A good use for older, slower Drobos). In any case, it’s worth remembering that however reliable the underlying hardware may be, filesystems can get corrupted, malware can attack, fire, burglary, or lightning strikes can take you by surprise, or users can accidentally delete things. Having a system which is resilient to hard drive failures isn’t the whole solution to the data storage problem. But it certainly helps!
None of my units, however, have network interfaces: they’re too old for that. And once you’ve dealt with the hard disk failure problem, most of those other threats are not going to be mitigated simply by backing up onto another Drobo sitting next to it on the shelf. In the past I’ve made Drobos available on the network by plugging them into various other machines: home-built Linux fileservers etc, but the Linux support for the Apple filesystems is not great, so it was never wholly satisfactory, especially for Time Machine backups.
Then, some months ago, I decided I needed a new wifi router which supported dual-band wireless, and so splashed out and got an Apple Time Capsule, which is essentially their Airport Extreme base station with an internal hard disk added, and it gave me both very good wifi and Time Machine backup space for every machine in the house. That’s really how it’s marketed, but you can also just use it as a generic file server, and in my experience, it’s a very good one.
I was nervous that I was being too much of an Apple fanboy in paying a premium price for a router plus disk, but I have never once regretted it. I don’t think I’ve ever used any networked storage which has been so simple and so reliable. I should mention that this is the previous generation of TC, not the latest, that I’m in an almost-all-Apple environment, and that I haven’t required it to do anything particularly unusual in the way of file-serving or router configuration, but for this scenario, it’s been quite superb.
And that’s not all. It has a USB port. So, as well as the internal disk, which I use for the Time Machine backups, I’ve plugged in a Drobo, and now have a few TB of nicely-redundant file storage for all my other backups humming away in a cupboard. Occasionally, I’ve opened the door and everything’s quiet, and after a moment of worry I realise that the Time Capsule is just very good about putting its disks into standby when not in use.
So this is really just a recommendation, both for the Time Capsule, and for Drobos (even elderly ones), and for the combination. If I were starting from scratch and looking for networked storage, I’d have to consider Synology, who also have a very loyal following, and whose devices can arguably do rather more than even the newer, networked Drobos.
But, for now, this arrangement is working well for me.
I was fortunate enough to get to play with one if these today – a Qualcomm Toq – one of the first to be publicly shown.
It’s very nicely put together, slightly bigger than my Pebble, with a colour e-ink touch screen, and wireless charging. But Qualcomm have created this more, they say, to seed the market and demonstrate their technology than because they intend to sell it directly; though the idea of making some available (at around $300) is being discussed.
I hope they do. That’s quite a lot for a watch, but it has a quality feel to it. The key question will be whether they can get good SDKs to developers early on, and whether they can make it play nicely with non-jailbroken iPhones… It’s not very easy to get past the restrictions that Apple (for some good reasons) imposes on developers, but at that price, they would probably be targeting the Apple-buying market.